‘Competitive’ or ‘committed’? How gender-coded bias in recruitment damages diversity

Women are soft and gentle, but they hit things.’

This was the opening line of a 1964 ad suggesting that damage inevitably caused to a man’s Volkswagen Beetle by his wife would be cheaper to repair than a competitor’s brand.

Subtle as a wrecking ball, the ad may indeed provoke women to violence, but fast-forward five decades and much has changed. Employers across the world, for example, now publicize their commitment to addressing inequality and gender diversifying their workplaces.

Academic institutions in particular pride themselves on being meritocracies and recruiting on talent alone. Scratch the surface, though, and the figures don’t bear this out. A WomenCount: Leaders in Higher Education 2016 report showed that men still dominate top leadership roles in the UK, chairing 81 per cent of all governing bodies and holding 78 per cent of vice-chancellor or principal roles.

Legislation precluding explicit discrimination may have done much to reduce bias in recruitment, but research sheds light on a rarely noticed but deeply divisive influence at work at the entry-point to the recruitment process: the drafting of the job advertisement itself.

Meritocracies only work if everyone has a fair opportunity to compete. Outrage and disbelief would be the likely response to the advertising of academic roles to only one gender. But studies show that the gender of the ideal candidate is being indirectly but powerfully conveyed through wording that reflects cultural stereotypes relating to men and women.

We are all aware of terms that carry nuanced but significant associations. The terms ‘bossy’ or ‘feisty’, for example, are generally not applied to men. The traits to which they allude – assertiveness, drive, leadership skills – are expected in a man, but worthy of comment, often with a wry raised eyebrow, in a woman.

Carefully-drafted professional job ads would be surely stripped of any inappropriately skewed terms. But try these for size:

Dominant Supportive
Analyse Understand
Determine Establish
Challenge Nurture
Compete Commit
Individual Interpersonal
Ambition Hope

Many terms like these are not neutral, but weighted by many layers of association. Research shows that women are deemed more communally and interpersonally-orientated than men, who are more associated with leadership and agency.

Men and women are, in turn, drawn to job ads containing terms associated with their gender as it signals that they are likely to belong in that role. Higher status groups, such as men, tend to be less concerned with a sense of belong because of their secure status in the gender hierarchy. Lower status groups attach greater importance to a sense of belonging (‘My values and this employer’s values are similar’, ‘I’m similar to people who work in this role’), and are more responsive to signals that imply they do not belong.

A 2011 study by Gaucher, Friesen and Kay identified two effects when job advertisements included more masculine than feminine wording:

  • participants perceived more men within these occupations
  • women found these jobs less appealing

The study showed that people imagine fewer women in occupations advertised with masculine wording, regardless of whether the occupation was traditionally male or female-dominated. They also found that, when asked to explain why they thought certain roles were likely to be male-dominated, no one identified gendered language, attributing their judgement instead to broader societal attitudes.

Subtly gendered language makes bias difficult to detect. Ironically, where there are strong institutionalised beliefs in equality, people can be less likely to pay attention to their own unconscious bias. Yet the reality is that gender-coded language has a discriminatory effect even if there is no discriminatory intent.

Many post-recruitment barriers to gender inclusion have been identified (such as exclusion from informal networking opportunities necessary for promotion), but this institutional-level barrier has a powerful limiting effect on the numbers of women who even begin the formal recruitment process for a role.

What may look like self-selection on the part of women choosing not to apply for certain roles is influenced, at least in part, by systematic and avoidable external factors. Meanwhile, consistently finding certain roles unappealing over time may persuade women that they are intrinsically unsuited for them.

It’s not simply a source of frustration. It’s a driver for more inequality.

So how can this change? Whether you are a job candidate or someone with responsibility for recruitment, you can:

  • break the silence – perhaps start by sharing this post with your network
  • test to see if a job ad is gender-coded by copying and pasting it here: http://gender-decoder.katmatfield.com
  • consider working with https://www.beapplied.com whose services include gendered language detection, bias-free application scoring, and a real time view of diversity data.

Highlighting and tackling unconscious bias now will ensure a wider, deeper and richer pool of talent for academic institutions across the world for years to come – a goal to which Global Academy Jobs is passionately committed.

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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